Happy birthday, Johannes

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) grew up in a squalid apartment in the red light district of Hamburg. His parents were so poor that, when their young son’s musical talent became evident, they hired him out to play the piano in dance halls and brothels. The young boy’s experiences in these places, where he was constantly surrounded by drunken sailors and prostitutes, along with the physical demands of the job (he was expected to play piano all night), nearly destroyed his health. It was a great relief to Johannes when he was able to quit his night job and earn money by giving piano lessons. Still, his life was never easy. One major source of anxiety for the young Brahms was the extreme slowness of his physical maturation; he was in his mid-twenties before he finally lost his high soprano voice, and his beard did not appear until he was in his thirties.

Brahms’s first composition teacher, Eduard Marxsen, provided him with an excellent grounding in the Austrian/German compositional tradition of Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert. While these composers became Brahms’s primary role models, there were other influences as well. The revolutions that swept across much of Europe in 1848, and the brutal suppressions that followed, created large numbers of refugees. One consequence was that the city of Hamburg experienced an influx of Hungarian refugees. They brought with them their gypsy music, which captivated the young Johannes and influenced his compositional style for the rest of his life.

The most famous of his gypsy-inspired compositions is the Hungarian Dance No. 5. One of a set of twenty-one Hungarian Dances originally composed for piano, it has been appropriated by instrumentalists of all kinds. Whether performed by violin and pianoaccordionsymphony orchestra, guitar, string quartet, marimbaglass harpviola ensemble, or whistling virtuoso, it’s one of Brahms’s best known and best loved compositions. Here it is in its original version.

Just for fun:

The Jewish barber (Charlie Chaplin) shaves a customer to the HD5 in The Great Dictator (1940).

Richard Perlmutter transforms the HD5 into a music history lesson for kids.

Looney Tunes uses the HD5 (along with excerpts from HD6, HD7, and HD17) in the soundtrack of “Pigs in a Polka” (1943).

Les Beaux Frères perform to the HD5 in a style somewhat more in keeping with some of the venues where Brahms played piano as a child. NSFW, but very funny.

6 Responses to Happy birthday, Johannes

  1. Captivating. Happy Birthday, Johannes. 🙂 — Suzanne

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A footnote to “his beard did not appear until he was in his thirties”: but it was a real good one when it finally bloomed. Mine is still scruffy, tho I am north of 70.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. […] Happy birthday, Johannes […]

    Liked by 1 person

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